On October 6, 1998 a hate crime occurred in Laramie, Wyoming. This brutal act riveted the nation. It also inspired a team from the Techtonic Theatre Company to visit the site. Their goal: to develop and understanding of the community in which the incident occurred. Following a year-long investigation they brought their findings to the stage. They called it simply The Laramie Project. This summer the Maple Shade Arts Council presented this verbatim theatre classic on their stage. I attended the opening night performance on June 21st.
During the winter of 2017, I had the opportunity to interview The Laramie Project’s director, Lori Alexio Howard. At the time she was rehearsing for a production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Howard expressed the following thoughts on that drama:
It’s a good time to be doing that show with what’s going on in the country. It will make audiences question their view of the world. It’s good to revisit and question the state of things.
Ms. Howard applied this sense of social consciousness to her latest endeavor. In the playbill she reflected upon the life of her first openly “out” friend.
I am grateful that JT has had 41 years (and counting) to be EXACTLY who he is. It’s because of who he is that I love him so. And yes, twenty years after the events in Laramie, Wyoming, things like hate, prejudice, violence, injustice, and intolerance of those who are different than us are all too common.
The Maple Shade Arts Council’s performance of The Laramie Project made for the most solemn evening of theatre I’ve experienced. All the actors delivered impassioned performances. Because of the story’s tone, no applause occurred between scene changes.
The Laramie Project contained an unusual format for a play. The scenes consisted of a series of interviews the Techtonic Theatre Company conducted with Laramie residents. They asked a variety of people for their thoughts on the murder of Matthew Shepard.
Mr. Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die tied to a fence in a remote section of the Wyoming prairie. What motivated this brutality? Matthew Shepard was a homosexual.
The script crafted these different interviews into a coherent story. Because of the myriad people involved the show’s 16 performers played multiple roles.
The nature of the text added another challenge for actors. Steven Jackson (who played Matt Galloway, Jonas Slonaker, Doug Laws, William McKinney) observed that the script contained words spoken by real people. He dedicated much time to memorizing the text in order to speak his lines as written. “It’s a deep play,” he added.
The Maple Shade Arts Council has presented their summer shows in various venues over the years. The intimate space they selected at the Maple Shade Municipal Building well suited this show. Performers walked through the aisles during the haunting candlelight vigil. Actors entered the stage from the seating area. Cast members stood in front of the stage just a few feet from the audience when speaking. Ms. Howard utilized the entire room to bring the spectators into the story.
Lighting designers / operators Michael Melvin, Lori Howard and Jackie Duran crafted and executed the lighting impeccably. They managed it so well that it functioned like a character in the show. The darkening of the stage at the appropriate times set the mood. The eerie glow enhanced the scene where the cast re-enacted the discovery of Shepard’s body. The flickering during the hospital CEO’s (played by Nicholas French) press conference imitated cameras snapping photos.
The performances in The Laramie Project will haunt theatregoers. The events it depicted occurred in the recent past. It chronicled the thoughts and feelings of real people living in a rural community. It centered upon a tragedy all too common in the modern era. In a sense it was like the director turned the theatre into a mirror. The audience watched a reflection of itself play out on stage.
In one scene performers Abby Drexler and Phyllis Josephson played Laramie locals being interviewed by a member of the Tectonic Theatre Company (played by Nicholas French). Ms. Drexler and Ms. Josephson discussed life in Laramie in a playful and relaxed fashion: until he asked about the Shepard murder. Then the performers became guarded and laconic.
Marissa Wolf delivered a soliloquy expressing her character’s disagreement with the media’s portrayal of the killing. She delivered her character’s view that Mr. Shepard was “not a saint” in a way that didn’t sound bigoted. Her delivery brought out the complexity the events engendered.
Doug Suplee turned in a powerful performance as Matthew’s father. During the sentencing of one of the killers, Mr. Suplee presented a gripping monolog. His delivery combined with the message of temperance made one of the show’s most compelling moments.
The show contained many outstanding moments. Sara Viniar turned in impassioned performances as the Islamic woman and the college professor. Brian Gensel played the young man who discovered Shepard with uncomfortable realism. Steve Rogina brought out the conflict within the doctor who discovered he treated both Shepard and one of his attackers on the same evening the incident occurred.
When directors seek performers who can play multiple roles in the same show, Nick French is becoming South Jersey Community Theatre’s “go to” guy. After playing all eight members of the D’Yasquith family in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder in January of this year, he cut back to just four in this show.
Mr. French portrayed the moralizing firebrand Fred Phelps. The upside down American flag he wore on his jacket accentuated his character’s views. Mr. French also played the empathetic hospital CEO with the same proficiency.
Performers Chrissy Wick, Chuck Klotz, Frank Simpson Jr., James Gallagher, Jerrod Ganesh, Kat Ross Kline and Michele Liberton rounded out the cast.
The production team included: Assistant Director Lisa Palena, Production Assistant Jackie Duran and Stage Manager Chrissy Wick. Edwin and Lori Howard designed the set.
Even with the disturbing subject matter, Ms. Howard brought out the latent message of hope at the end. As she wrote in the playbill: “All you need is love.” The Laramie Project is one small step towards making that message more common. It runs through June 29th at the Maple Shade Arts Council.